I opened up my Facebook page sometime this week and saw an almost-year-old video of The1Janitor being reposted and liked by a lot of people because he was answering the question that almost every person with dreadlocks (dreads, locs, loc’d etc.) has been asked at some point.
“How do you feel about white people with dreadlocks?”
I have had locs for over 12 years and I get asked this question quite frequently and for a while I didn’t have an opinion. Slowly, not having an opinion transformed into having a strong negative opinion and now, I am not sure how I feel, because as it turns out this question has always been about something more complicated than hair.
It is about “giving permission” to people perceived as outside of a particular culture validation and a “pass” to partake...Being the gatekeeper of a hairstyle is a strange position to be put in when there are positives and negatives to holding authority based in experience. Being able to grant or deny access to someone concerning something as supposedly free as personal choice cannot be prohibited by stark binaries.
The lines of cultural appropriation and acculturation are so thin that it seems all we have left are the determinations of something so invisible, something so simultaneously important and dismissible as intention.
The cultural appropriative of all poc cultures inspire anxiety and anger. Ideas of tradition, authenticity, authority and access intersect to create a barrier of impossible rules that we can only strive to understand and navigate. The question of whether or not “white people” can wear dreadlocks is more about privilege than it is about the specifics of hair.
The stereotypes of loc’d black and brown people in America are those of criminals, drug dealers, unprofessional, dirty, untrustworthy, and just about any other harmful ignorant stereotype you can place on black skin and black hair. I can’t even count how many times I have been given the backhanded compliment about “how clean my hair looks,” because of how “filthy” they have expected my hair to be. Or about how “neat” I keep my hair, because they were expecting to see some “unruly nest” atop my head. I have had people tell me I will never get a job (in any sector, not just corporate), as if hair has ever related to intelligence and professionalism (same with tattoos, facial/body piercings,sex, race, gender, etc...).
The issue that I hear many black wearers of locs expressing towards white/white passing or racially privileged loc’d people-- in the context of the United States-- is that these negative associations are not inescapably attached to their bodies.
White and other non-black poc wearers are consider “hippies,” “new age,” “trendy,” “progressive,” “alternative,” “free-spirited,” “artistic,”and a bunch of other positive adjectives that are not attributed to black wearers of the style.
This is seen as offensive because the identification of dreadlocks as a “black hairstyle” has a lot to do with the rise of Black Power. The beliefs of the Rasta in 1950’s Jamaican society, and the introduction of Rastafarianism to the U.S. in the 1960’s & 70’s, paired with the theology of Black Liberation, established these doctrines and practices as platforms for the expression of the struggles of black people, giving voices to those unheard while inspiring people to be focused on the well being of their community and of themselves.
Dreadlocks and the Afro are considered to be a large part of black culture in America because of these two styles symbolized the liberation of black identity through the natural hair from the “universal” Eurocentric standard, a purpose both these styles still serve today.
The wearing of natural hair textures and styles has been seen as a revolutionary act in the self expression of many people around the world, but this is not the only context.
Moving out of the United States and the Caribbean, and considering the global culture of hair of this style adds a whole other layer to its history when including the practices of people in Europe (Celts), Asia (Tibetan Buddhists), India (Sadhus), the Middle East (Dervishes), Africa (Egyptians; Massai) and many places in between; often associated with spiritual leaders. For someone who has had locs most of their life, it is crazy for me to realize that I did not know much about these people, but considered my hair the only strand truly capable of creating this form.
There is no answer, because even over concerning something as seemingly simple as a hairstyle, context will always envelope culture in order to give perspective.
The more we try to make things more universal or more restricted, the more we miss out on understanding that the problem is truly the system that forces us to evaluate and discriminate against one another based on painful histories entrenched in damning stereotypes.
Dreadlocks are not new. White people with dreadlocks are not new; black people with dreadlocks are not new; asian people with dreadlocks are not new. People with matted hair are not new nor are they bound to one culture, time or place. Part of what makes all of this so hard is that we desperately want to hold on to something, claiming it as ours, while wanting to release ourselves of its harmful burdens.